Feasibility of Building a Mecha: Could It Be Possible?

The character Optimus Prime from the popular series The Transformers transforms by rearranging his body parts into a semitrailer truck. The Gundam series features pilots engaging in space battles using massive mobile suits. Power Rangers combine smaller machines to form a humanoid robot known as Megazord.    

Referred to as mechas, these colossal robots have the potential to be heroes when needed. However, the question remains: would these giants be practical in real-world scenarios? 

One can witness a real-life version of a Gundam in Yokohama, Japan. Standing at an impressive height of 18 meters (59 feet), this massive robot may not have the ability to fly in space or use laser beam sabers, but it can perform actions like bending down on one knee and moving its fingers. It currently holds the Guinness World Record for being the largest mobile humanoid robot.  

Sangbae Kim, the director of the Biomimetics Robotics Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, suggests that while some giant robots are more feasible than others, engineering a Transformer that can rapidly morph would be more challenging than creating a Gundam mobile suit that maintains its shape.  

According to Robert Siddall from the University of Surrey in England, there aren’t significant technological obstacles hindering the creation of a rearranging robot. However, achieving the speed of a Transformer changing its form in mid-jump would necessitate extreme accelerators on all interchangeable parts.  

Some Transformers have the capability to transform into vehicles that require utilizing physics in unique ways. For instance, Seaspray can fly as a hovercraft above the water and swim in the ocean. Siddall mentions the challenges associated with creating a flying submarine due to the drastic changes required for such dual functionalities. Flight demands lightweight structures, while underwater mobility necessitates denser and hydrodynamic designs. 

Mecha Creation 

Roboticists have already successfully constructed basic mechas. The Japanese company Suidobashi Heavy Industry introduced its rideable mecha, Kuratas, in 2012. This 4-meter (13-foot) tall robot is equipped with four wheels and two massive arms. Moreover, in 2017, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, rode in the Method-2, a 4.1-meter (13.5-foot) tall walking mecha created by South Korean roboticists from Hankook Mirae Technology.  

However, as Siddall points out, unlike their on-screen counterparts, these smaller mechas operate at much slower speeds. He notes, “They don’t exhibit the dynamic movements seen in movies.”

Experts Say: Robot

The square-cube law comes into play when considering the construction of taller objects. Siddall explains that as an object’s height doubles, its surface area increases by the square of its height, whereas its volume increases by the cube of its height. This principle also applies to animals. Large creatures, such as sauropod dinosaurs like Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus, evolved anatomical adaptations, such as hardened tendons, to support their immense weight. Similarly, elephants possess foot pads to distribute their weight efficiently and facilitate movement. 

Siddall suggests that incorporating soft and pliable footpads could help in energy dissipation. Reinforcing a robot’s structure with rubber material could provide additional shock absorption, akin to how bones function in the human body. Despite being as sturdy as fiberglass, human bones offer more flexibility than steel, aiding in dispersing the impact of high-energy actions like running and jumping. 

Even though a mecha might be able to walk, running could pose significant challenges. The pressure exerted on the feet during running, equivalent to three to four times the body weight, would be immense for a robot. The Yokohama Gundam, weighing 25 tons, equates to the approximate weight of five male African elephants. While constructing a walking robot of Gundam’s scale is conceivable, rapid running or a sudden fall could risk damaging the mecha. 

This 18-meter (59-foot) tall Gundam in Japan holds the world record for the largest mobile humanoid robot. 

Replacing steel with titanium could reduce the weight of a mecha’s framework, given titanium’s strength and lower weight compared to steel. The integration of carbon fiber with titanium could enhance the material’s durability and lightweight characteristics. Titanium, a common material in high-speed aircraft and spacecraft construction, has the potential to be a suitable choice for mechas.  

In cinematic portrayals, mechas excel as formidable combat machines, relying on their bulk to handle challenging situations. However, in reality, a mecha may exhibit more sluggish and less coordinated movements than depicted in movies. So, what practical applications might a real-life mecha serve? 

Kim suggests that a real mecha could function akin to an advanced excavator, clearing debris and excavating using its mechanical arm. Such massive construction robots could potentially replace multiple specialized machines, enhancing efficiency and ease of operation.  

These colossal robotic workers could find roles in mining operations, offshore construction, and even assembling structures in space. Siddall envisions future mechas being instrumental in constructing space stations or habitats in near-Earth orbit, necessitating robots of increasing sizes to handle the monumental tasks. 

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